The documentary 1971, which enjoyed its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, is directed by Johanna Hamilton and written by Johanna Hamilton and Gabriel Rhodes. 1971 is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO.
COINTELLPRO was an illegal FBI surveillance program which focused on covertly video-taping Americans, gathering information through secret agents, and keeping extensive files on “suspicious”Americans who appeared to be taking a position counter to the government’s political line. Depending upon who you read, today, the program is alive and well and being used extensively in violation of the constitution. Welcome to 1971.
Through archival material, interviews, and clips of the members of the Citizen’s Commission, then and now, Hamilton relays the backdrop of social and political culture in the turbulent 60s in America leading up to their action. The 8 activists, like many other Americans, were interested in defending their Constitutional rights which they sensed were being ignored and violated by overarching government and monied interests which greatly benefited from the Viet Nam War. The non-violent activists were disheartened by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy. With each assassination there was a stepping up and reaffirming of the Viet Nam War’s justification, a stepping up of the draft, a greater deployment of young men and women sent to Viet Nam, and greater numbers of American soldiers returning in body bags. The concept of the Viet Nam War being a “Just War” was illogical; it was opposed by clerics and scholars alike and this led to massive protests and social unrest. President Nixon, who vowed to end the war, actually escalated it.
The Commission 8 had joined many protests on college campuses and elsewhere and understood that they were being video-taped and that agents were infiltrating the protest movements. But when college protests ended in students being killed in Kent State and Jackson State, and students were breaking into military recruitment offices, stealing files, and others were burning draft cards and going to Canada with no effective result, each felt they had to take a greater stand to disrupt the war machine and bring to light practices which they intuited but couldn’t prove were unconstitutional, anti-democratic and more reminiscent of a despotic police-state than a republic. Indeed, the police-state power exercised by J. Edgar Hoover had circumvented the Constitution, which he willfully bent to his will, surreptitiously cowing political and civil rights leaders by getting the word out he had a file on them. Hamilton includes clips of these historical accounts and the commentary of the Commission 8 to review this period of American history.
Embracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom that an unjust law is no law at all, the Commission 8 organized a break-in to an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, at great risk to their lives, careers, and families. To prove that the FBI was breaking the law, they had to break the law. If they were caught they would be looking at extensive jail time and would be considered un-American, anti-American, and most likely traitors, a tremendous irony. But they had counted the cost and decided that the country as a republic, their constitutional freedoms and their own consciences dictated that they take FBI files and turn them over to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other papers around the nation, exposing that the FBI was engaging in unconstitutional activity. It would be up to the papers to exercise one of the last freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, freedom of the press. If they cowered in fear, they would be supporting illegality and covert surveillance activities. The press in America would no longer be free; it would be censoring the truth, hiding that the FBI considered itself above the constitution and was tantamount to its own law.
Hamilton has reworked this fascinating period of history creating a documentary that is a thriller, a heist film, and an adventure story that is all true. What really happened is being revealed for the first time. The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI never was caught, though they came very near to being exposed and their identities revealed. How their actions had an impact on securing our constitutional freedoms with the help of the press is a crucial piece of history that has implications for us today. Certainly what the Commission 8 did helped to lay the groundwork for the Church Commission’s investigation into covert and illegal surveillance of American citizens. Their turning over the files to the press helped to lay the groundwork allowing for future exposes to the press.
How they escaped detection for forty years, concealed their identities, and effected one of the finest non-violent actions during the Viet Nam War years is a very important reminder for Americans today. To ensure we have a democracy, we must actively engage and exercise our freedoms; if we do not, we cannot count on government to ensure them. Indeed, in 1971 the government was covertly undermining our rights. Any thorough reading of American history has shown that this has been more of a norm and not an exception. It is when brave, concerned, participant citizens and thinking activists like The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI take a stand, our freedoms are being upheld. For them it is worth it the risk to ensure that government serves the people, not the other way around.